Question to be asked: There seem to be a lot of different ideas about how a person can be sure to be allowed into Heaven. I have a lot of family members who tried different approaches. Are they in Heaven or not?
Intro: I’m going to guess that the main reason for this question is that someone cares about their loved ones. That’s a good thing! Would that EVERYONE was in heaven! And how I wish that everyone loved their family members, and their friends too, enough that they would care whether or not those people are in Heaven. That’s a commendable concern, because it means that you love people and it also means you accept the reality of Heaven and Hell. No subject is more important than this question: What must I do to be saved?
I want to share a quote with you that takes that concern a degree further…
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”
Well. That’s kind of tough to chew on, isn’t it? Who said that? Keith Green? Franklin Graham? No. That’s actually a quote from atheist Penn Jillette, of the magician duo, Penn & Teller. He’s not a Christian – not at all.
I just thought it would help us to keep that in front of us as we address this big question this morning. What we’re talking about isn’t just trying to speculate about something over which we have no control! What we’re ultimately looking at today is a question of what Christian people are supposed to do about people who aren’t believers yet!
We can’t talk about the spiritual state of people who have already died without also talking about the spiritual state of people who are still alive and what we should be saying to them, amen? So, I want to speak about this whole big, important, subject today, and also to address the specifics that usually come up when we talk about it.
The chances are that there might be some different answers given, depending on your background, your understanding, or, frankly, your level of pride.
What must I do to be saved? Ask that question – please! And and then answer today if you’re sitting here as a person who’s saved or who needs to change where you’re at!
There are a few important points that help answer this…
Salvation is conditional
One of the reasons people disagree on this subject is a misunderstanding about the nature of salvation.
From the very beginning, there were misunderstandings among believers regarding the relationship of God’s grace and good works. Some wanted to say that you are saved by good works, by law-keeping, but the NT is very clear that no one is saved on the basis of their good works. No one is saved on the basis of keeping the law. No one is saved because they have done enough good things that they somehow “earn” or “merit” Heaven.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Can you be saved by your good works, or just by being a “swell person”? NO. I may like you a lot. Others may like you a lot. That may especially be true if you’re no longer alive, because, somehow, our personal goodness seems to rise to the surface after we die! Have you noticed that? But our good works can’t save us.
Listen in to what Jesus said,
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
So, can you save yourself? No! but I notice, not everyone will be saved - only those who meet the conditions.
I read along in the gospels and Acts the story of people who want to know the answer to this big question - What must I do…
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Nothing. Not a thing)
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (You don’t need to do anything)
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Nothing. Don’t worry about it)
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (You don’t need to do anything)
When people ask, “What must I do to be saved?” the answer is never “Nothing. You don’t need to do anything to be saved.” That’s because God has given us the way to salvation, and He has given us something to do to receive it; conditions to meet. We’ve all met the conditions to be guilty (that is, we’ve sinned), and we all have conditions under which we can be saved. That doesn’t mean we earn it or work for it. By the way, baptism isn’t a work that we do. It’s a work that God does.
Salvation is conditional. It isn’t contingent on our good works, but that doesn’t mean it’s unconditional. Just for fun sometime, try to find the word “unconditional” in the Bible.
The whole plan of salvation is according to God’s design
It’s interesting to me how God tells us about Himself, and then we turn that around and create an image of God that we created - so, God is impotent, unpredictable, just a jolly ol’ fellow. These are the views of God that are usually preceded with the words “The God I serve would never do that.” If you say that along with something the Bible flat-out says, why not just be honest and say instead, “The God that I have created in my mind would never do that”?
God is Who He says He is. God is like what He says He is like. God acts the way God says He acts.
Ill - Imagine finding an online dating service where you don’t just look at the description of the person on the other end, you write it! Imagine that, ladies. You write the perfect man; you choose from a variety of pictures. You get to decide where he’s from, his annual income; you get to decide that his favorite things to do are watch chick flicks or just sit and talk for hours! And then, when you’re done, he turns into exactly what you’ve described. That’s kind of the approach a lot of people use with God. Sorry. God has already posted His profile. He’s not waiting around for your write it!
It’s also interesting to me that God tells us the story of creation, of human history, of our fall and need to be rescued, and how that’s supposed to happen, and then we turn around and tell God how that’s going to work - so, in our “kinder, gentler explanation” of it all, hell disappears, there’s some way besides Jesus, or everyone ultimately ends up in Heaven, and the conditions of getting there lose all meaning.
Just like it’s backwards for us to tell God what He’s like, it’s backwards for us to talk about Heaven and then explain our own created version of how people will get there.
Ill - Imagine being a teacher, handing out a course syllabus for the semester, and then having a student raise his hand and say, “Excuse me, Mr. Smith. You say here that in order to pass this class I have to take 2 final exams. I think one is enough. And you say that in order to get an A+ our average has to be a 100%. I think that’s too high. I think that you should give an A+ to everyone who just tries hard.” What is Mr. Smith going to say? He’s going to say, “I’m in charge here. I set the rules. You can feel about them how you choose, but that’s not going to change them. You will have to take 2 final exams to pass, and if you want an A+, you’ll have to have an average of 100%.”
This whole discussion is about something that’s not up to us to design. This is God’s plan. We just happen to be let in on it, with the goal that we would accept it and be saved. Thankfully, we get to use Jesus’ GPA instead of our own! That’s God’s design, and it’s a lot better than yours or mine or anyone else’s!
Here’s another important point when it comes to answering this question:
Our role in this is to proclaim the truth
Sometimes, when it comes to things that are totally up to God and not to me I like to say, “I’m in sales, not management.” This is one of those times. What I have to say, or you have to say, right or wrong, about this doesn’t affect what will happen to those who have gone before us. We can’t change that.
Nothing we say or want or wish changes someone who has died. Hebrews 9:27 says that it’s appointed for man to die once and after that comes the judgment.
But this is still a very important question, because what you conclude about this in regards to people who have already died will likely have a deep impact on what you do about people who are still living.
Among some of Jesus’ last recorded words on earth are these from Matthew 28:18-20…
Having gone into all the world, make disciples of all nations, as you are baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and as you are teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…
So, if you get on the internet, you can find on our church website under “what we believe” this idea which I certainly affirm - that baptism in water is a vital part of becoming a disciple of Jesus - that it’s more than just some outward symbol or some ceremony that a person goes through.
I can also tell you that because we believe and teach such a thing, we’re in a minority in the world of “Protestant Christianity.”
Ill - I sat at lunch some years ago here in Rockford while a parent of some of our students at that time said to me, “This is the only church I’ve ever heard of that makes such a big deal about baptism.” He also suggested to me that we shouldn’t even teach about it because when we did that just chased some people off.
Look at some church websites, on their “what we believe” section, and see the variety of things you’ll read about baptism. Again, if this is about how a person is saved, it’s a pretty important subject, right? But there’s a lot of confusion out there about this. Why the confusion?
Bear with me, and in a few minutes I’d like to tell you how we (The Church) got here.
(How did we get here?)
It begins with the day the Church began, a few more than 40 days after Jesus rose and then returned to Heaven. You can read about it in Acts 2. Peter preached the gospel of Jesus for the very first time. 3,000 people believed, and when then asked, “What shall we do?” Peter told them to repent and be baptized. 3,000 people were baptized that day, and the Church began. Continue reading in the book of Acts and you begin to see a pattern of people hearing, believing, repenting, being baptized, and following Jesus. Under the leadership of the Apostles, the Church grew, right on through persecution and other challenges.
For about 1500 years, the Church held to the teaching that baptism “does something.” It wasn’t just a symbol. It was “efficacious.” There were some variances regarding how it is done and for whom, but it was always under the understanding that it did something. 1500 years.
Then, in 1523, a Swiss reformer named Huldreich Zwingli published a bold and unprecedented view:
“All [his previously held] beliefs were erroneous…water baptism cannot contribute in any way to the washing away of sin…In this matter of baptism - if I may be pardoned for saying it - I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the Apostles…ALL the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy Apostles did not teach.”
Zwingli’s teaching impacted the Church right as the Protestant Reformation was underway, and guess what became the predominant view of the Protestant Church? That baptism, is simply a testimony, of some kind, of a person’s faith; that it is a way of publicly identifying or proclaiming a person’s faith in Jesus; that baptism is a good work that a believer does, much like tithing or fasting or any of a number of things.
Now, there were some members of Protestant denominations who got together at the end of the 1700’s and suggested returning to the biblical pattern of baptism as it’s found in the Scriptures. It became known as the Restoration Movement. And, here we are this morning, another 250 years later, still teaching that same thing. But look at the timeline again - 1500 years, changed by the teaching of one man, and it has shaped this last ¼ of Church history so that we have what we have today. And we’re accused of being different because we have this view of baptism that has occupied the Church for the first ¾ of its existence!
Here’s an idea: Why not let God explain baptism to us? Why not humble ourselves and turn to His words about it? I’ve heard and read a lot of efforts to try to describe “what baptism is.” When baptism is described in the Bible, it’s never called a testimony, profession, confession, proclamation, pronouncement, representation, display, sign, symbol, affirmation, identification with or declaration of faith. NEVER.
Why not use Bible words to describe Bible things? When we use the Bible’s words to describe baptism, here’s how we end up talking about it:
Matthew 28:18-20 - becoming a disciple
Galatians 3:27 – clothing yourself with Christ
Acts 22:16 – washing away your sins, calling on His name
Acts 2:38 – “into the forgiveness of sins”
1 Corinthians 12:13 – into the Body of Christ
I Peter 3:21 – making an appeal to God for a clean conscience
Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12 – being buried with Christ into His death
There’s not enough time, but there’s time enough to say these 3 takeaways:
1. Look at what Scripture says
Read through the book of Acts in particular, and consider the pattern there. People hear the good news about Jesus, they’re called upon to repent and be baptized, if they believe. Those are the conditions that someone is told to meet if they want to be sure they’re saved. And when people do believe, they’re baptized - right away. They aren’t led in a prayer. They don’t raise their hand while every head is bowed. They don’t wait a year or 2.
2. Teach the truth in love
Trying to determine the salvation of people who have already died really ought to point us to consider something else: what am I going to do about people who are living?
If the Lord makes exceptions to that is up to Him. He’s the only One qualified to decide. Not you. Not me. But what are we going to do?
As for me, as for CCC, we’re going to teach the truth in love to those who will listen. We’re going to do our best to point people to God’s word and what it says to do so that as many people as we can reach will have the certainty of God’s promise.
3. Practice the truth in love
Baptism is never called “a command” in the Bible. It’s not just another good work for us to do or a command to keep. It’s something more. It’s a work that God does, not that man does.
But even if baptism is simply another command of God for a believer, how do we teach that something is a command of God, but then follow that up by saying it isn’t necessary? What commands of God do we put on a list labeled “not necessary”?
Remember, this is all about God in the first place. My relationship with God isn’t just about me getting Heaven. It’s about God getting me!
Is it necessary, or not?
Someone once said, “Baptism is as necessary as Moses’ rod was necessary.” God could have used anything He wanted to when it was time to change the Nile River, to part the Red Sea. What He chose was a rod, a staff, a piece of wood. That stick didn’t save Israel. But God chose to use it as He worked miracles among His people. What would have happened if Moses had said, “I don’t want to point this staff. I’m just going to wave my arm!” Hopefully, someone nearby, who cared enough, would say to Moses, “Moses, this is what God said to do. Why not do what God said?”
You’re looking at someone right now, who cares enough to say to you, “Why not just do what God said to do?”
Saul of Tarsus had heard a message from Jesus - directly. This destroyer of the Church was convicted in his heart that he’d been wrong. For 3 days, he fasted and prayed; 3 days he was showing a changed and humbled heart, and he was talking to the Lord about it. It was after those 3 days that a man named Ananias said to Saul, “And now, why do you delay? Arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”
You can’t make this stuff up – because it already has happened and has already been written down for us!